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China Urged to Stop Repatriating N. Korean Refugees - 2002-11-27

A group of human rights activists are calling on China to stop repatriating refugees from North Korea. They urge Beijing to grant the refugees asylum and give the United Nation access to them.

Representatives of international human rights groups gathered in Tokyo Wednesday to push for more support for thousands of North Korean refugees hiding in China.

At a news conference, they called on China to stop forcibly repatriating them to North Korea, a Chinese ally. They also urge the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to protect them.

Currently, China limits international agencies' access to its border with North Korea, were the majority of the refugees are based. Beijing considers the North Koreans to be economic migrants and repatriates them.

Tarik Radwan, a lawyer for the Jubilee Campaign, a U.S. human rights group, says members should insist that the United Nations immediately start screening those seeking asylum.

He says if Beijing refuses to cooperate, the UNHCR can appoint an arbitrator to help achieve its goals. "Nobody can keep you from applying from asylum," said Tarik Radwan. "No one can keep you from going to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees and nobody can keep the UNHCR from coming to see you. That unimpeded access is critical, because the refugee has a right to it and the U.N. has a right to it and it is being denied to an entire ethnic group of people on a totally unlawful basis."

North Koreans began fleeing to China in the late 1990's to escape famine and repression at home. As many as 300,000 North Koreans are in China, where they have mainly settled in the province of Jilin along the border.

Earlier this year, groups of North Koreans began storming foreign diplomatic compounds in China to seek asylum. While more than 100 succeeded and drew international attention to their plight, China has cracked down on security around embassies and has tightened surveillance near the border with North Korea.

Norbert Vollertsen is a physician from Germany who worked in North Korea and was expelled for taking a stand on human rights. He thinks that extensive news coverage will ultimately force China to grant North Koreans refugee status. "I am an emergency doctor and this is an emergency case because people are starving and dying," he said. "I have to act now. I cannot wait for [Korean] reunification in 20 years. I cannot wait for political negotiations with the United Nations Human Rights Commission, whatever. I have to act now."

The activists also expressed concerns that an international consortium's recent decision to halt fuel shipments to North Korea will make food shortages worse, because factories may not have enough power to process food. They predict this will increase the flow of refugees into China.

The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization stopped the fuel aid earlier this month after Pyongyang told a U.S. envoy that it was pursing a nuclear weapons program, in violation of several international agreements.